Q&A: Microsoft's Windows marketing chief says Apple's 'scared'

Do you love Microsoft’s recent TV ads? (See them all on YouTube here.) Hate its “Apple Tax” marketing campaign? Then meet Brad Brooks. As Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Windows consumer product marketing, Brooks approved both campaigns as part of his goal of burnishing Windows 7’s image in advance of its October launch (and tarnishing Apple’s).

Brooks’ moves seem to be working. Reviews of Windows 7 are much more positive than Vista’s were. And according to a survey this month by Advertising Age, Microsoft is now seen as providing more value than Apple, especially among 18 to 34-year-olds.

A Windows marketer since 2002, Brooks was promoted to his current position in February 2008. Brooks talked with Computerworld late last week. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

CW: The Seinfeld-Gates commercials last fall got a lot of people talking, but not necessarily in a good way. Your newer “Laptop hunter” ads seem to be a lot more effective. Timed with the recession, they’ve got a class-conscious attitude that you could almost say is Marxist in tone.

Brooks: (Laughs) This was always part of the plan that we created two years ago and have been executing in the past year. Microsoft was founded on a simple principle—to democratize technology and put the power of software in everyone’s hands. That is really what we have tapped back into with “I'm a PC” and taken forward with the “Rookies” and “laptop hunters” commercials.

CW: You also seem to be tapping into this vein of consumer resentment over how Apple tries to dictate one aesthetic, one vision of cool. You’re hitting the nail on the head.

Brooks: That's what we mean by customer choice. About a year ago, I got on stage at a Microsoft conference and made the controversial statement that we’re no longer going to be defined by somebody else’s snarky attitude, that we’re going to be defined by who we are and what we stand for. That represents the billion people who use our products every day.

CW: What do you think of Apple’s response, the most recent “Get a Mac” ads?

Brooks: I think [the way] they’re responding to our advertising is a reflection of what's happening out in the market (both IDC and the NPD Group show Mac sales dropping in the U.S. in recent months).

They're scared. The Ad Age survey shows how our brand is coming alive through three things: the ads, hitting our commitment to build a fantastic product with Windows 7, and around delivering the truth about the “Apple tax” and the value you get when you go with Windows.

CW: But plenty of bloggers and journalists have done their own calculations and concluded that there is no "Apple Tax" and that when you buy a cheaper Windows PC, you make a big compromise.

Brooks: I don’t think that’s true, and I don’t get their numbers. When you fundamentally look at the facts, at the cost of features like HDMI-out, or Blu-ray, or getting a 17-inch LCD screen, or memory or RAM ... there is a tax to pay. In my mind, there is no argument when you look at the basic facts and data around this.

Besides hitting Apple where it hurts on price, where else do you think your marketing has scored points?

Brooks: The message is coming across on simplicity. One of our best ads is the Rookies ad with Kylie, which shows how easy it is for a four-and-a-half-year-old girl to use Windows to do photo editing and sharing. Windows 7 is going to simplify everyday tasks, work the way you expect it to—and want it to—and make new things possible.

CW: The UK “Rookies” commercials I've seen are a little more adventurous and cheeky. Why not bring some of that spirit here, if only to deflect the criticism about Microsoft always being so bland?

Brooks: The UK ads are a reflection of the culture and the folks. We love those ads. We love those ads a lot. We thought long and hard about bringing those ads to mainstream U.S. television, because we tested them here and they tested extremely well.

But we also had the “Laptop Hunter” ads doing extremely well. So we were in the enviable position of having a couple of great elements from two different campaigns. We decided to stick with consistency, for now. But we’ll continue evolving our ads. Sometimes it will be a lot of fun, sometimes it will be a little bit edgy.

CW: What follow-up commercials can we expect?

Brooks: We plan to keep using real people to tell real stories. Some people think we hired actors for “Laptop Hunters.” We didn’t. Those were real people who we told to find their best choice at a given price. They didn’t know it was Microsoft. Many times the price would’ve allowed them to get an Apple, but they came back with a Windows PC.

We'll continue to evolve the discussion around what value means. It’s not just about a great price, it’s about having a style, a color, a configuration that is right for me. We’re not dictating your choice.

CW: What are your partners telling you?

Brooks: If you ask Best Buy, they will tell you we are having an impact by driving people back into the retail experience. If you ask a PC maker, they will tell you that people associate our ads as much with Dell or HP as with Windows. We wanted not just to build the Windows brand, but build up the ecosystem. It’s working better than we could have imagined.

In other words, the PC ecosystem that was demoralized during Vista is now being reinvigorated with Windows 7.

Brooks: I was here during the Vista timeframe, and I can just tell you, this is a different day. We are all feeling very stoked.

CW: Are you ever surprised, though, at the contrast? After all, on a technical level, you could say Windows 7 is “Vista Reloaded” or Vista Service Pack 3 without much exaggeration.

Brooks: The development of Windows 7 started a few months even before Vista shipped. It was based on the fundamental premise that we would start with the customer. It would not be a “Field of Dreams” approach where we would build it and they would come.

So am I surprised that partners and customers are going absolutely ga-ga over this product right now? No.

CW: When will the Microsoft Stores launch, and how will they promote Windows 7?

Brooks: We don’t have any dates. All I can tell you is that some stores are coming, and they will all be about defining and bringing to life a new PC shopping experience.

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